February 1, 2008
Miami Herald- Frank Calzon
What will Cuba's armed forces do when the all powerful dictator, Fidel Castro, dies? How will the military exert its influence? Will it play a role in the future? Support democratic reforms? End the communists' monopoly on power?
The questions are intriguing because under Fidel's iron fist, Cuba's military spent years fighting in the proxy wars of Africa for the interests of the Soviet Union and against those of the United States.
Cuba's monothematic official line is: ``There is absolute unity and unquestionable loyalty within the armed forces, which will defend the revolution with their blood against any challenge to its absolute economic and political control.'
To quell disturbances
Cuba's special forces, under the command of Gen. Enrique Lusson Battle, are stationed in Havana to quell any disturbances. In his late 70s, Lusson Battle is part of the gerontocracy still occupying Cuban leadership positions. He failed miserably as minister of transportation in the 1980s, but is close to Raúl Castro.
'¡Para siempre!' The idea that the existing order simply goes on ``forever' because people don't want any changes is mantra in Cuba. It is also fiction. It defies history and logic to think that every officer is ready to put his life on the line to prevent change, that none harbor ambitions of their own and that all Cubans even those yet to be born subscribe to the status quo.
No doubt, there are officers and soldiers dissatisfied with life in Cuba who favor a democratic transition. They can name officers who were executed or are serving long prison sentences on trumped up charges. They wince at government's use of thugs to beat up dissidents. They are few, but enough to be feared by the regime they serve.
There are also the 'realists' -- officers who believe that if the single-party rule survives Fidel's death, the regime can regain the public support it once had. Their problem is a government that stakes its legitimacy on orchestrated, one-candidate elections that guarantee the Communist Party 90 percent of the vote. Hugo Chávez lost the Venezuela plebiscite and survived, but the military realists in Cuba believe that they could not survive a close or losing vote, so they argue against any opening and for greater repression.
Things remain the same
In the past, Cuba's military looked at Raúl Castro as a guarantor of its interests, someone who would discard ideology to achieve results. Yet since Fidel turned the government over to him, Raúl has produced no reforms to reduce the risk that the army will find themselves in a confrontation with the Cuban people. No one today suggests that if Raúl were in charge, 'things would be different.' He is in charge, and things are not different.
Cuban soldiers are not a caste separate from the Cuban people. Most do not relish firing on unarmed protesters. Many have relatives abroad. The government has not kept its promises of a better life to the thousands who fought in Castro's African expeditions. The demise of Fidel will be a psychological turning point for the military, just as it will be for other Cubans.
There is also that generational divide. Cuba's generals are much older than their troops. They are the veterans of the 1950s guerrilla struggle, and their lives are directly tied to the Castro brothers. But the lower ranks view of the regime mirrors that of the general population. It is the young officers who have suffered most because of Castro's disastrous policies. They feel the future belongs to all Cubans, not just communist ideologues, and given an opportunity will challenge orthodoxy and advocate change.
Cuba's military, as a class, has had greater contact with the outside world than other Cubans and has today the most experienced managers, albeit in Cuba's controlled economic environment. Some of these officers noticed and studied the transitions in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, maybe even those of Chile, Portugal and Spain.
So the questions remain: Will the military rise to challenge the gerontology, take control and avoid confrontation by introducing political and economic reforms? What will Cuba's military do?
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C.